Dr. Gridlock

Jun 20, 2011

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers. I just got back from a week on Cape Cod. During that time, I was sorry to see the announcement that Neil J. Pedersen is retiring at the end of this month as leader of the Maryland State Highway Administration. He's been a strong advocate for highway safety.

I was also sorry to see that the things VDOT did to try to ease congestion at the Beltway for eastbound drivers on the Dulles Toll Road didn't do the trick. We'll talk some more about that and also address your many questions and comments on our local traffic and transit issues.

Any suggestions to avoid congestion/ alternative routes to Delmarva? thank you!

I don't see any practical way for drivers from the DC area to avoid the Bay Bridge when they're heading for the Eastern Shore. The land route north around the bay is just way too far. There aren't any other bridges or car ferries that are going to help you get to the shoreline around Ocean City, Bethany or any of the other popular spots.

Only thing is to follow the advice about bridge travel times offered by the Maryland Transportation Authority:

Thursday before 2 p.m.

Friday before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

  • Saturday before 7 a.m. and after 5 p.m.

    Sunday before 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

My schedule requires me to drive to the (South) Albany NY area on Sunday July 3. I travel there often and usually go up I-95, NJ Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, NY Thruway. I generally try to avoid driving on major weekend Holidays. This time I am considering using I-83, I-81, I-84 to connect with the NY Thruway. It looks like it will be about an hour longer this way. What would you advise? I just don't want to get stuck in traffic in New Jersey. Bill In MD.

I just did the I-95/Turnpike route as far as NYC, so I could give an eyewitness account before Fourth of July travel. The worst spot continues to be the Newark, Del., toll plaza, especially on the northbound side. The construction of the highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the plaza is not scheduled to be done till late this summer. When we drove I-95 south on Saturday, I saw northbound traffic backed up well into Maryland, because of the lane restrictions at the toll plaza. New Jersey wasn't so bad in either direction, despite a lot of construction where the state is widening the turnpike. Most of that is off to the side of the highway.

So bottom line: I'd seriously consider that Pennsylvania option for travel on a holiday weekend -- even though the Sunday of Fourth of July weekend is likely to be the lightest of the travel days.

On 395 North into DC, right after the Pentagon there is a left exit to merge onto the HOV lanes and into DC via 14th street without going over the 14th street bridge. For as long as I can remember I have used this route in the morning becuase there was an electronic sign above stating something like "all traffic permitted." The sign has been gone for several months - and I continue to take the exit along with my fellow commuters over the years. Question is - was there an active decision to change the permissive policy - or did the sign just break? Thanks.

I'm betting it's the sign. There's been no change in the hours for HOV. (Meanwhile, on the general purpose lanes, the work zone drivers see now on the 14th Street Bridge northbound is supposed to be the last of them. The project is scheduled for completion by the fall.)

Hello! I have noticed for the past couple of weeks that there has been construction on the platform at Shady Grove and Rockville stations. There are no notices informing passengers of what the construction is about. Is there any chance that Metro will be putting additional stairways/escalators at Shady Grove? It's chaotic trying to get to the stairs/escalator due to the large amount of passengers. Thanks!

That work is part of the long-term rehab program for the Red Line. Many of you out that way noticed work on the platform over the winter. That work picked up again when the weather got warmer. I know of no plan to build a stairway or add escalators at Shady Grove in the near future. Metro had to rebuild the deteriorating platform, starting with the foundation and now replacing the paving tiles on top. You should see a new form of paving tile that will last longer and be easier to maintain than the old terra cotta hexagons.

Hello, One of my main irritations when riding metro (Red Line) are those riders who listen to their audio devices too loudly. My assumption is that they have poorly chosen earphones or just don't care that most people in their seating area can hear the music. I boarded a very, very crowded train at White Flint and a Metro employee (uniform, safety vest) boarded too. I don't know if she was on/off duty but her music was extremely loud. Like the kind of loud where everyone stared at her but she didn't care. Is it too much to ask for Metro employees to set an example and be considerate of those on the train? I know it's a small pet peeve but it speaks volumes about the lack of respect people have today. Thank you!

I know what you're talking about on the volume issue with some riders, but there's no rule other than that a person needs to use headphones. I worry more about the users. For the rest of us to hear like that, the volume must be ear-splitting for the person wearing the headphones.

Dr. G: I'd like to update my GPS software to include many of the new roads/exits that we have in DC. Garmin wants me to update yearly, but I'm not sure it's worth it. Do you know if major changes (e.g., the ICC) have made it into Garmin/TomTom/and others' maps? How long would you wait before updating the software? In other words, when will we have a critical mass of new projects online?

My Garmin Nuvi is five years old, but I've not wanted to pay for an update on the maps. That means it has fits whenever I drive through the Springfield interchange or around the Wilson Bridge work zone or along the Intercounty Connector. That means that it still works just fine for most purposes and I wouldn't drive without a GPS.

I don't know if the GPS companies have got the ICC yet. I did notice that it has made it onto the online maps, like Google Maps. (There was a point early on where they went too far. For a while, if you were getting directions for a trip from, say, Gaithersburg to Baltimore, Google would route you along the entire length of the ICC to I-95. That would have been some ride. The construction workers would have been very surprised to see you.)

With so many of the system's escalators out of order, I'm curious if Metro has thought about better directing riders to the station's elevators, whether through signs or actually having personnel outside the stations. Seeing so many tourists carrying strollers down the escalator, along with those that have difficulties (for a multitude of reasons) walking up and down the steps, worries me. I don't even want to imagine what would happen if someone fell and seriously injured themselves and likely others.

I wish there were more prominent signs telling people not to take strollers on the escalators. A few months ago, I was on an up escalator at Judiciary Square that slowed quickly to a halt. I rode back down again to make sure the station manager knew, but met her as she was running up to restart it. She said that she had seen one of those double-wide strollers heading toward the escalator and knew there would be trouble, but couldn't get there in time.

For the general public: The elevators aren't any substitute for a functioning escalator. I remember last summer when the platform escalators at Bethesda were out of service for months. The platform elevator was not a reasonable alternative. The more people who tought of the elevator, the longer the line got at rush hour. They don't have the capacity and don't move fast enough.

We need more staircases between the platform and mezzanine.


Dr. G., A couple weeks ago, I saw a comment that if there is just one working escalator in a metro entrance it should always be going up. In most cases that would make sense. It wouldn't make sense for Foggy Bottom in the morning rush hour. In the am rush hour, the vast majority of passengers are exiting the station at Foggy Bottom. I don't know what the percentage of passengers leaving (vs. arriving) is, but at times it seems like 95% or more. Not having a working down escatator will make it difficult for those who want to go down into the station fight against the crowd. This is almost like those salmon who travel upstream to spawn . No down escalator will practically make Foggy Bottom an exit only station for a good chunk of the am rush hour. Naturally having working escalators at all times would alleviate the crowd problems, but the fundamental problem is that Foggy Bottom only has one entrance to the station. This is simply not adequate for the peak of rush hour. A new entrance to Foggy Bottom can't come soon enough.

Foggy Bottom is one of the most difficult stations to get in or out of. It has just that one connection to the street and really could use a second -- but there are no immediate plans for that. Instead, Metro is putting in new escalators this year. It's one of only two stations getting new escalators. It's also getting a staircase, which I think will be very helpful.

I understand you're basic point about the current situation. At Foggy Bottom and other heavily used stations, people don't stay to the right to allow others to walked down on a stopped escalator. I think the comparison to a salmon is a good one.

I know you addressed this in your column last week, but there was no chat last Monday. I've just learned that the current ramp configuration - with just one lane heading to the Northbound Inner Loop of I-495 - will be in place for at least one more year! I don't understand how VDOT and MWAA can tolerate this situation. Allowing a private contractor to dictate the plans and then not mandate any real improvements to what is probably the worst construction related traffic problem in the nation is simply unacceptable.

I'm not sure about the nation, but I do believe this is the worst construction-related bottleneck in the DC region right now. In my first column about it, the June 12 one that you're referring to, I said VDOT planned some tweaks to try to ease the situation. Those didn't work as well as we all hoped, and I continued to receive complaints from drivers. I published one such letter in yesterday's column and listed the new things that VDOT is going to try over the next few weeks:

The right lane of the eastbound main toll plaza will be reserved for E-ZPass users, so motorists bound for the Beltway won’t have to move from the far left to the far right to reach the Beltway ramps. The left lane approaching the Beltway will be extended 1,000 feet to assist motorists merging from the left side of the Toll Road.

The signs that orient drivers for the Beltway interchange will be modified, and drivers will see them before they reach the toll plaza.

This sounds more promising than the first few tweaks that VDOT announced early this month, so I'm hopeful. But I agree that this is something that VDOT really needs to address, since the construction is going to continue well into next year.

Hey Dr. G., My daily commute begins and ends with a Metro bus ride. I ride a variety of buses (4-5 bus lines stop at at my bus stops) and I have interacted with a number of drivers. Overall, I find that most drivers are professional and courteous. Lately, I have been wanting to pass along commendations to Metro but how are these commendations handled by Metro? Mininally, I would hope that the comments are passed along to the drivers but are good drivers financially rewarded for doing an exceptional job?

Go to this page on Metro's Web site to find the comment form on which you can report nice things about the good drivers:


Or call this number: 202-637-1328

I don't believe the drivers get any bonus specifically for being professional and courteous. That should be part of the job, rather than an exceptional behavior. But I think positive feedback from riders would find its way into the drivers' personnel records and could be a factor in evaluations.

Dr. Gridlock, my comment isn't about commuting per se, but I hope you will consider it nonetheless. Today is June 19. In the past week, we've had the woman shutting down part of the Metro Red Line with a fake bomb threat; the guy shutting down a major commuter artery due to suspicious behavior at Arlington Cemetery; and a plane grounded at National Airport due to a person making a bomb threat in Ohio. Each of these incidents -- none of which led to any weapons or other damaging substances being found -- were seemingly caused by one person and crippled parts of our capital city for hours. Could this be the new terrorist methodology? Deploy lone-wolf types who don't actually do anything other than make empty threats, and presto! Mass hysteria; confusion; gridlock; great anxiety and inconvenience caused to many people. I hope you will publish my note and comment on it or invite others to do so. Thank you.

There doesn't appear to be any connection among these incidents. Perhaps just a weird cluster? They certainly had a serious impact on travelers, though. I don't see alternative ways for the authorities to handle them -- even though the results delay and inconvenience travelers. Does anyone see such alternatives that would get people moving while still maintaining safety?

Any idea why WMATA has not published ridership numbers on its website since Mid-February? With the economy recovering and gas prices high I would expect rail ridership is growing again. But perhaps WMATA did not want to reveal these numbers while the budget was being negotiated?

It reminds me of questions I've gotten over the years about why the newspaper is surpressing this or that. Having worked in newsrooms for three decades, I know that we could never rise to the level of efficiency required for an effective conspiracy. Metro looks the same way to me. I think this is a transit staffing issue, rather than a conspiracy. But the thing I really miss and think the public should miss isn't the daily report on the ridership. It's the daily report on the problems with trains. When and why was this or that train taken out of service?

As for ridership: The Metro staff delivers a financial report to the board each month, and that includes ridership information. As you say, rail ridership has been growing and Metro has been touting that as good news. It was bus ridership that took the biggest hit, especially after the fare increase last summer.

Saw a sign this morning indicating there will be construction on RCP starting today through October. Couldn't find info on the Post website. Seems there will be major delays. Beyond the ongoing construction is there something new?

On Monday mornings, I do a posting for our Dr. Gridlock blog called "The week ahead for traffic, transit." This morning, I put in an item about the Rock Creek Parkway and I think it might be what you're looking for:

Starting today, drivers will find the southbound curb lane of Rock Creek Parkway closed approaching Waterside Drive. The Federal Highway Administration is going to lengthen the acceleration lane from Waterside Drive onto the parkway in a project scheduled to end in November.

A new traffic pattern will be in place during the morning rush that will allow use of only the northbound travel lanes to Waterside Drive.

Between 7 and 9:15 a.m. Monday through Friday, the National Park Service says, traffic will be able to enter the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp adjacent to the Shoreham Hotel from southbound Connecticut Avenue at Calvert Street, and proceed to the southbound parkway.

At other times, the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp will be closed to southbound traffic.

Beginning at 9:30 a.m., the traffic direction will be reversed, so drivers can go north only on the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp.

Dr G., As you wrote, last Monday, VDOT reduced from 6 to 5 the eastbound lanes of the Dulles Toll Road between the main toll plaza and the beltway interchange. VDOT's curious logic was that making drivers commit to their final lane sooner would reduce congestion. My observation (as a 'reverse' commuter) was that the morning congestion was significantly WORSE and there was newly created afternoon congestion. I complained on VDOT's website, they acknowledge they caused more problems. So, my question: does VDOT plan to go back to the previous configuration? (Notice I didn't ask if they have a plan to reduce congestion less than what existed previously. I don't expect miracles. I don't want them experimenting with my commute. After last week, I hope for status quo.)

Do look for my answer above on what VDOT plans to do in the next few weeks in the space from the toll plaza to the Beltway ramps. But you'll notice that doesn't include adding capacity on the ramp to the northbound Beltway. I'm hoping the announced changes will help significantly, but think that northbound ramp will continue to be a problem into next year.

My Nuvi is also 5 years old but I was forced to get new maps because many of the roads I needed to get to didn't exist with the map I had. I did find that the price for lifetime maps these days is about the price a yearly map update was when I first got the Nuvi. So it's worth looking into if you haven't recently.

Thanks for that advice, which I, and probably other readers, will be looking into.

Travelers, I've got to shut down our chat now. I can still see, maybe, 30 questions and comments in the mail bag, including some responses to issues raised early in the chat. So I'll try to respond to some of them on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next 24 hours.

Thanks for joining me today. Stay safe on the roads and rails and rejoin us next Monday.

In This Chat
Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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